The birth of Australian footy in Scotland, 16 years on

With the first year of AFL Scotland’s women’s competition now completed and the men’s competition now in their 16th year, it seemed like a good idea to re-visit the origins of the league in 2003.


I was prompted to write this article in 2004 by Australian Rules Football Historian John Devaney.  It was originally titled “The birth of the Edinburgh Puffins or How God’s game came at last to Scotland” and published on John’s Full Points Footy website.  This website is now called and the article can still be viewed at this location. Thanks to the website editor, Andrew Gigacz for permission to reproduce it here.


Puffins team photo. [First published on]





The Edinburgh Puffins and the Northern Cup.


Coming up to just over a year after Andy Butler and I took the first steps in seeing what interest there was in Aussie Rules in Scotland, I would have to say that the results have definitely exceeded our expectations by a long way. It essentially started when we had a few nights out with our other halves after my fiancée and I moved to Edinburgh in the middle of 2002. Andy and I had been team mates at the North London Lions in the late ’90s before Andy moved to Glasgow after meeting his now wife, and I returned to Australia.


We decided later in 2002 that it was worth putting up a few posters at Aussie pubs, Irish pubs, and hostels asking for people to contact us if they wanted to have a kick and then see what happened. This was timed to occur in the lead up to Australia Day in 2003 in order to maximise the potential audience.


The Oz Bar on Candlemaker Row and the Globe on Niddry Street in Edinburgh were supportive as were most of the Edinburgh Youth Hostels. Later Bar Oz also put up our posters and this ensured a steady flow of enquiries. This peaked when an Aussie security guard put one up in the Easy Everything Internet Café on Rose Street and this caught the eye of many people including several who became regular players. Andy found the going a bit tougher in Glasgow, and the level of enquiries was much slower. Fortunately the Glasgow Walkabout Pub has now got right behind them which has been a great help, as has the support of the Edinburgh Walkabout which opened in September 2003.


In mid-February 2003 we had our first kick in Edinburgh with fewer than ten people. Only one ever came back, Josh Stanford, and he became a regular fixture. We had our next kick a month later and over twelve different blokes turned up. By this stages a pattern emerged where only one in three people who contacted me would ever turn up, despite many talking a good game. To keep things simple I just took names, email addresses and phone numbers and sent out a weekly group email to keep people in touch. It was much easier than doing things in the pre-internet days when I was General Manager at the North London Lions in the BARFL (British Australian Rules Football League).


At times I emailed people on the list to ask them what sort of format people wanted. Scratch games? Traditional football training sessions? etc., but few responded and it seemed best just to turn up and hope that people would go along with what was on offer.


After one session in late April we were in the pub and got talking about how we needed a name. Most of the names mentioned didn’t get much enthusiasm until Gavin England, who later became our coach, suggested we call ourselves the Puffins. Initially everyone laughed and joked about how the name was the most non-threatening you could get and this could throw out your opponents but we did agree it was relevant. Scotland probably has some of the world’s biggest land colonies of puffins, notably the island of St Kilda, but no one took the suggestion seriously initially. However, when a fair amount of time had elapsed with no-one coming up with a better idea that was both different and distinctively Scottish, the name stuck. Later attempts by newer players to change it because they weren’t that keen on the name failed, and once we started to enjoy some success it was never going to change.


Once British Summer time started at the beginning of April we switched to weekly Wednesday night sessions and started to see regulars coming almost every week. At this stage I was speaking to Dunedin Connolly’s, the only Edinburgh based side in the Scottish Gaelic Football League. We arranged a combined rules game which mutated in to one half of modified Gaelic Football and one half of Aussie Rules. If we had kept score, it would have shown that we got hammered in the first, Gaelic half. The tackling rule, which has always been a contentious one in International Rules, was changed to have one arm tackles since we were used to tackling and they weren’t but you were left with a moment of indecision as they would run down in waves, an important part of the fast play-on style that characterises the Gaelic game. The second, AFL half was more even as they struggled to direct passes using an oval ball, but with ten minutes to go, they dispensed with kicking the ball until they got within ten metres of goal and only did hand passes. They quickly banged on about 6 more exposing the fact they had been training twice a week for three months and we had only trained about five times.


Despite the result we were still fairly happy with everyone’s endeavour and had enjoyed our first game against real opponents. For the rest of the summer until mid October we would get at least twenty, or more often thirty, players every Wednesday for a scratch game on the Meadows in the centre of Edinburgh , using bags as posts. The player mix was varied; blokes who had played a high standard in amateur, suburban and country leagues played alongside English, Scottish, Irish, South African, Zimbabwean, New Zealand and French blokes all keen to play. I think the lack of ‘friendly’ standard sporting opportunities in Edinburgh helped us quite a bit. Many people said they were keen to do something but the only thing that you could play in a casual format was soccer. Other codes invariably required a higher level of ability or commitment.


While many people came and went over May and June we were unable to get a fixture against an established side until the inaugural Northern Cup, organised by the St Helens-based North Western Miners in July. We had a squad of eighteen players commit which was encouraging but I was concerned about how we would go against experienced sides. While our mid-week games did see some keen contests and good skills, the intensity was a level or two below a real game.


In the first five minutes of the first game we did some nice pieces of play but only scored points. After our first goal, the whole team lifted and tore in to contests and charged out of defence playing committed well disciplined football, setting a standard we kept up for all five games. Our squad was a mixture of one third who had played a fairly good standard back home, one third of blokes who had played a bit here and there or were getting past it, like me, and the other third was UK/Irish and South African blokes who were new to the game. The format of the Cup was three sides (the other two were the North Western Miners and Wandsworth Demons) playing each other twice in games of two 10 minute halves.


After winning our first game by about 3 goals we then went on to win every game including the final by 31 to 14. Just before half time in the final we lost some momentum and started to look shaky but managed to steady in the second half and were stunned at the end to realise we had won the whole tournament against two established sides. We knew that Wandsworth was made up of leftovers from their seconds, and the St Helens side were two thirds UK based and we were two thirds Australian based, but I was nevertheless really surprised given that we had only played friendly games amongst ourselves in the past but still managed to come out and play textbook team football, hard but fair attacks on the ball, supporting team mates, unselfish passing. Maybe in the previous months, playing game after game, we had almost unconsciously developed into a group of mates who were a highly motivated, tight-knit unit without the egos of established clubs where there can be a division in some sides amongst the players about who’s getting paid what, or between the firsts and the seconds teams.



The Puffins players take the opportunity to relax between games during the Northern Cup. [First published on]


After this tournament we continued on with the Wednesday night games for the rest of the summer and tried to arrange for other sides to play against but they all fell through. Our last planned big event in 2003 was a friendly game involving Sydney Swan Adam Schneider, brother of one of our regulars, Damien Schneider. This coincided with a feature by Glasgow Sunday Herald journalist Ali Paton (best known as TV ‘Gladiator’ Siren), who wrote a generous article.


We had stopped by the middle of October when one of our regulars Je Son put us in touch with Oxford University who turned out to be, like us, struggling to find opposition to play against. We quickly arranged a home and away series. They came up first to play us at the end of November and we managed to win by 4 goals in a hard fought game in muddy conditions. The Oxford Squad consisted of twelve Rhodes Scholars and was quite deceiving. During the welcoming night out we had the night before the game, our coach Gav and I were saying that they seemed too intellectual to be very good at football but we were quite wrong. While most players came from a Rugby background they knew how to play and like some UK British-based sides are very hard to beat in wet conditions given their superior tackling and the fact that they are normally much heavier and able to plough physically through the opposition.


They were only able to bring up twelve players so we played the same amount on the field and had a ten man bench which was a challenge in itself. It did ensure we had more legs in the second half but made it difficult to give everyone a run. We played the return game in February down in Oxford which was similar to the first game where they were very strong in the first half, and this time went out to a 4 goal lead; however, we came back and snatched a win by 4 points.  This time they had a full side and we had roped in some reinforcements from different parts of the UK to ensure we weren’t undermanned.


There was one major thing that happened between these games – we had an ‘AGM’ in order to decide on what to do next. The main positive factor to emerge was that there was enough enthusiasm to expand and have a three team league in 2004, creating the Scottish Australian Rules Football league, with plans to have two Edinburgh sides and one Glasgow side. This meant the end of the Edinburgh Puffins but we now had enough Glasgow players to create a proper national side and this meant our combined side for away games would be called the Scottish Puffins. Twelve months had turned out to be a long time for Scottish Football.


EDITOR’S NOTE 1 (written by John Devaney circa 2005): The Scottish Australian Football League conducted its first ever season in 2004 with three teams. Hopes are high that the sport will at long last establish a genuine foothold about a century after the alleged, but almost certainly mythological, Glasgow shipyards competition to which C.C. Mullen (in)famously referred in his 1958 ‘History Of Australian Rules Football’.


EDITOR’s NOTE 2 (written by Andrew Gigacz, May 2013): The Scottish Australian Rules Football League (SARFL) continues to this day, with the Aberdeen Eagles, the Edinburgh Bloods (née Puffins) and the Glasgow Sharks the three participating teams in 2013. The SARFL also hosts the Haggis Cup each year in April, with 15 teams including women’s teams from five countries participating in the 2013 event.



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